You have a great idea for a new business. You’ve been watching a lot of “Silicon Valley” so you’re totally ready to make a cap table, hire some awesome employees, and get bought out for a truck full of cash by a venture capitalist.
The small, tiny, almost insignificant hurdle is that you have basically no customers and you know nothing about the few folks you do have.
This, young entrepreneur, is a marketing problem.
Your sales funnel needs widening. A successful marketing campaign can increase both the top of your funnel—bringing in more potential customers—and increase your conversion rates.
Today, we’ll look at seven tools you can start using today, for free, to accomplish one or both of these objectives.
These tools are things that anyone could use to boost their business, especially small businesses. We’ll talk about everything from shaking hands to search engine optimization (SEO). The list is divided into two sections based on what you hope to accomplish with your marketing: increased visibility or increased conversions.
Building a strong foundation for your marketing efforts
There are things to track and consider before you start any marketing campaign. If you’re not tracking your costs and efforts, you’re going to lose money—every time.
Who are you selling to?
I’m convinced the biggest problem in the small business and startup worlds today is the conviction that everyone is a potential customer. They aren’t. Your product is not going to be for everyone, no matter how ingenious or seemingly universal the need.
Hell, there are toilet paper people and bidet people. Toilet paper isn’t even for everyone—what are the chances an app is? Before you start marketing—before you finish planning the product, I would argue—you need to figure out who you’re going to sell this thing to.
Buyer personas can get you a lot of the way there and they’re an easy bit of work. Survey people you think would be interested in your product and find out why they’re interested—if they actually are.
Sit down for real conversations and try to figure out the scale of the problem your product addresses.
An apocryphal story, but an interesting one:
A detergent manufacturer did customer research to figure out how to get more people to buy its product. They went into homes and actually watched people do their laundry. Researchers noticed almost every home had sticky rings of liquid detergent all over the laundry rooms.
As a result, the company added a little lip to the detergent cap to catch the overflow of detergent, keeping it from running down onto tables and shelves.
Little pieces of information can lead to solid changes in your approach to selling and marketing. Who are the people that really need something from you? Once you know that, you can start thinking about how you track the data you’re generating.
How will you track data?
There are two kinds of marketing—good marketing and bad marketing. Good marketing is like printing money. You shove $100 into the process and $120 comes out. Bad marketing is like a barrel fire full of cash. You can probably figure out what happens to the $100 you put in.
To keep yourself on the path to good marketing, you need to track what you spend money on, who responds to you, and what kind of response you get. In short, you need some way to approximate ROI.
I recommend customer relationship management (CRM) software for your business. A CRM, well used, can help you determine ROI, track important conversations, and support scheduled follow-ups, all of which will help you generate more sales.
Don’t worry about going broke, either, as there are a solid set of free CRM options out there for businesses just getting off the ground.
A selection of free CRMs
With a system in place for identifying customers and tracking your marketing results, you’re finally ready to dive into the actual marketing.
Free marketing tips for increasing your visibility
This is the first and most basic goal of most marketing campaigns. You want more people to know who you are. Specifically, you want more people who might actually buy your product or service to know who you are.
It’s the sign on the outside of your business or the listing in the Yellow Pages. Increasing visibility is key to getting more people through the door—even if the door is virtual.
1. Network locally
Local networking is both a great way to build connections with real, actual humans and an excellent way to increase your local visibility.
Most small businesses still rely on local demand to grow, even those based online. Networking events can put you in touch with folks you’d never bump into during your normal routine.
You should have some sort of business card—not free—and a solid elevator pitch explaining your business before you dive in. Remember, just because you’re mingling doesn’t mean you’re hanging out. You’re still a representative of your business, so keep the white wine to a minimum.
2. Line up some guest speaking events
Many networking groups feature speakers at each meeting. The move from attendee to speaker isn’t a difficult one to make and can really increase your profile. If you don’t have that sort of networking group or if your group isn’t providing any useful leads, there are other opportunities that can reach beyond your existing network.
TEDx talks are a perfect example of a speaking opportunity living in the grey area between local and regional. You could even organize a TEDx conference, which would certainly put you on the map.
Depending on your audience, you can also reach out to youth groups, schools, churches, professional organizations, or local arts groups. There are plenty of people who want to hear how interesting people do interesting things.
One last note here—speaking outside of a networking event is tricky. Try to sell yourself without being a salesman. No one wants to hear “How I Learned to Write for the Web” if it’s really just “How Awesome I Am—Buy My Stuff.”
3. Get that blog rolling
Blogging is a great way to tell the world what you stand for, how they can use your services, and what sets you apart from the crowd. Like speaking, though, honest blogging can be a fine line. Ideally, you’re generating interest without the hard sell.
Think back to the kinds of people you want to attract. What questions do they have that you can answer? How can you provide value through your existing knowledge or skills?
If you’re a local DJ, for instance, give tips for choosing wedding music or picking local venues. If you’re a plumber, what are some signs you need a new boiler? Maybe you make a crazy new dating app—where are the hottest places to take a millennial on a date in NYC?
Blogging can generate tons of traffic. As you collect emails and comments, you can figure out who you’re currently bringing to the site and tweak your content accordingly. Moz has some great tips on making Google your friend through SEO optimization.
4. Generate customer reviews
Everyone has a score. You’ve got an Uber rider rating, your favorite restaurant has a Yelp review, and just about everyone else has a Google star rating of one kind or another. Your small business can have a rating too.
Just look at those sweet, sweet reviews
Each time you finish a customer transaction, ask them to get on the most valuable referral channel for your business and leave a review. Happy customers beget happy customers and no one should charge you for reviews.
Important to note: most of the rating systems out there require you to ask for reviews uniformly. You can’t send out a card asking for “a great Amazon review if you loved us, but don’t bother if you didn’t.”
Generating customer reviews is great for visibility, but it also offsets the problems you can run into if you get a few dissatisfied clients. Get 100 glowing reviews before the two bad ones come in—research shows most people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation.
Free marketing tips for increasing your conversions
Once you’ve got a solid flow of customers through your front door, over the phone, or coming in online, you need to turn those potential customers into actual customers. This is where your earlier planning is going to shine.
Using your customer data, you can start to suss out who’s buying your products, what products they’re buying, and where they’re coming from.
5. Go to your customers
Chances are, a few non-Google sites are sending you a bunch of traffic. Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp all jump to mind. Instead of waiting for those people to come to you, go find them.
You can interact on all of those sites for free. On places like Yelp, you can add opening times, update specials, and respond—nicely—to good and bad reviews. On Facebook you can announce events or let people know about your new services.
A small business doing it right on Facebook
Reddit and other community sites can be more difficult, as you usually can’t just go in guns blazing. Instead, find places where you can add value for people. Answer questions on your lunch break or when you’re overwhelmed by your accounting and need a minute.
By increasing your online presence in the places your customers are coming from, you increase the number of quality customers you bring in.
6. Ask for referrals and leads
“Thanks for trusting us with your heating this year, Mr. James. If any of your neighbors need help, here are a few of my personal business cards. Just tell them to give me a call.”
A great way to get something is to ask for it. While Yelp and OpenTable are going to get miffed if you just ask for good reviews, there’s no rule against asking your best customers to point you to more customers.
Putting a card in their hand gives them something tangible to pass on and putting the idea in their head makes it more likely to happen. Referrals are one of the best sources of quality leads, and you can get more by simply asking for them.
7. Guest blog
Once you have your own house in order, find someone who needs help with their blog. Chances are, your business is related to another business—restaurants love hotels, plumbers love electricians, lawyers love real estate agents.
By getting in front of a similar audience, you both increase your reach and set yourself up as an expert in a field. The best part of this is, everyone wants your free content. No one has the time to run a business and hit that crazy blog schedule they came up with. You can help.
As a secondary here, accept some guest blogs on your own site from time to time. Having another voice on your blog is a great way to get a free week of blogging and it grows your community.
Find more ways to reach out
These are just seven—incredibly awesome and actionable, probably thought up by a very clever writer—ideas for getting into marketing. The best general advice I can give is to listen to the people around you.
Talking to friends, entrepreneurs, and mentors can help you understand what message you’re sending out and who’s getting it. Each refinement should take you closer to being the next big thing.
As I said at the beginning of all this, having a plan in place is key. Don’t jump into anything without a clear understanding of the market you’re trying to reach or without a solid plan for what you’re going to do with the data you generate.
If you’re looking for more ways to grow your business, save on costs, or just run a company people love to work for, check out Knocking Down Doors, Capterra’s small business and entrepreneur blog. Until next week, good luck.